Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
For decades, American foreign policy on Latin America has gone through cycles of neglect and concern. It’s in a cycle of concern again, prompted by an Iranian campaign to make friends and influence people in the American backyard. Washington’s message to Iran’s Latin friends – don’t get too close – does not appear to impress them.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in unusually strong language, sounded the first warning on December 11: “I think if people want to flirt with Iran, they should take a look at what the consequences might well be for them. And we hope that they will think twice.”
President Barack Obama followed up eight days later with a message focused on Venezuela, Iran beachhead in Latin America. Ties with Iran had not served the interests of Venezuela and its people, he said in an interview with a Venezuelan newspaper. “Sooner or later, Venezuela’s people will have to decide what possible advantage there is in having relations with a country that violates fundamental human rights and is isolated from most of the world.”
Since those warnings, Iran’s Latin American friends have made clear that they are not thinking twice, as Mrs. Clinton suggested. Instead, the leaders of Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Ecuador are preparing to play host to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the second week of 2012. In another move to poke the “great Satan”, Iran’s label for the United States, in the eye in its own backyard, Iran launched a Spanish-language satellite TV channel, HispanTV, to break the dominance of international broadcasters that are “muzzled by imperialism, hiding the truth and twisting the facts.” So said Iranian Radio and TV executive Mohamed Sarafraz when he launched the new channel on December 21.
There is more than a little irony in that assertion, given that state-run Iranian media are no strangers to hiding the truth and twisting the facts, not to mention that the government imprisons journalists, jams foreign broadcasts, and engages in Internet censorship. The new Iranian channel aims beyond the countries run by anti-American leaders and is meant to convince Latin Americans of “the ideological legitimacy of our (Iranian) system to the world, ” in the words of Ezzatollah Zarghami, head of Iran’s state radio and TV. That’s easier said than done. Latin Americans dissatisfied with news and information from their own countries can turn to the Internet and to international networks already broadcasting to the region in Spanish — Britain’s BBC, TVE of Spain, Germany’s Deutsche Welle, Voice of America and CNN.